How to Shake Up Expectations of Public Art

There is a preconception that art is restricted in public spaces. Indeed, public spaces such as Trafalgar Square or the Olympic Park are well-known, historic and politically-charged locations, which carry pre-defined associations and expectations and provide a background or context for artworks. By presenting art in such spaces, we automatically assume that our audience has a shared visual language, and that they also have shared experiences from which to derive the appropriate response. However, our society no longer rallies in a unified mass. Our society is international and diverse, and we should demand that art in the public realm is, too.

Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, ArcelorMittal Orbit, 2012, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, London

Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, ArcelorMittal Orbit, 2012, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, London

Display an artwork anywhere but its original setting, and the work no longer engages you as it would or as it should. It’s tricky to ascertain appropriate and specific sites for an artist’s expression. The Gallery space could be the public space  for the presentation of art that we have been looking for, and it has been here all along.

Historically, the Gallery has been the preserve of the wealthy intellectual elites, while only art in exterior or religious spaces was accessible to the masses.  But today, we see a large amount of galleries which are free to the public, and welcome audiences of incredibly diverse nationalities, ages and class. While outdoor spaces are rigidly defined by historical and political associations and expectations, the Gallery’s ‘white cube’ is comparatively unrestrained.

For example, the large-scale installations by Rafael Gomezbarros and Ibrahim Mahama currently at the Saatchi Gallery in the ‘Pangaea’ exhibition flourish and intellectually engage visitors within the white cube environment. Mahama’s jute sacks drape down heavily across the walls of the Gallery, and thrust the viewer into a space immersed by the dark brown hues and rough textures of the worn-out sacks of the Ghanaian coal markets. Here the art work is able to claim the space for itself, and influence the public on its own, powerful terms. Draped half-heartedly anywhere else but the Ghanaian markets the installation was created for, and this work would lose all ability to bring the audience into its world. In the Gallery space, the public can engage with the international context of the work.

Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2013, wall installation with draped jute sacks

Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2013, wall installation with draped jute sacks

Rafael Gómezbarros, Casa Tomada, 2013, Resin, Fiber Glass, Madera, Screen Cotton, Cuerda Arenas, Cerrejón Coa

Rafael Gómezbarros, Casa Tomada, 2013, Resin, Fiber Glass, Madera, Screen Cotton, Cuerda Arenas, Cerrejón Coa

Not only do these installations immerse their audience, but they encourage a multiplicity of aesthetic and intellectual responses. To some, Rafael’s giant ants evoke the displacement of political refugees in Colombia, but others are able to see in the work the plight of Latin American immigrants in Europe. The Gallery encourages the public to react freely in the manner of the diversity of its constituents, and does not try to conjure up the idea of a rigidly unified visual culture and experience. If Rafael’s ants crawled over the façade of the Houses of Parliament, this would probably encourage a more restricted interpretation of the artwork’s message.

We need to look to the Gallery as a public realm for art, or we will lose touch with our ever-evolving international artistic community.

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